The Enid Blyton Society
The Secret Island
Back Book 1 of 5 in this category Next

Book Details...

First edition: 1938
Publisher: Basil Blackwell
Illustrator: E.H. Davie
Category: Secret Series
Genre: Mystery/Adventure
Type: Novels/Novelettes

On This Page...

Reprint Covers
Artwork
Review by David Cook
Further Illustrations

Reprints

Spine, front cover and front flap from the 1st edition, illustrated by E.H. Davie


Frontis from the 1st edition, illustrated by E.H. Davie


First 'cheap' edition that came with a pictorial onlay and a glassine wrapper, which was published a few months after the 1st edition. It is internally identical and often mistaken for the 1st edition, which was twice as thick and came in blue cloth boards.


2nd edition published in 1940. This was a chunky edition like the 1st and still had the pictorial spine, but the title had been changed from green and yellow to blue and white.


1946 Reprint


1st German edition published by Blüchert Verlag, in 1963,
illustrated by Rolf Rettich, with the title The Arnold Children Run Away

In Germany the Secret Series and the Adventurous Four became one series,
firstly called 'The Arnold Children' and later 'The Bold Four'
This book is the first of many by Enid to employ the island motif as a story setting. One of her favourite books as a child was The Coral Island by R.M. Ballantyne, first published by Thomas Nelson in 1857, and Enid never forgot the adventures of Ralph, Jack and Peterkin as they survived being shipwrecked on a small island. However The Secret Island is unusual for Enid in that the island in the story is set in an inland lake and was not one of her usual offshore islands. Indeed, as far as I know the only other instance of an inland island setting occurs in Adventures of the Strange Ruby published by Brockhampton Press in June 1960, after being serialised between May 1958 and March 1959 in Enid Blyton's Magazine and now re-issued and re-written by Gillian Baverstock as The Riddle of the Rajah's Ruby (Collins, 1997). Therefore Enid was perhaps subject to other influences in locating her first island.

Sheila Ray has quite correctly attested to the possible influence on Enid here of Richard Jefferies' novel Bevis published in 1882. Within The Secret Island Enid gives no real clue as to the island's whereabouts, but in The Secret of Spiggy Holes it's stated that the Cornwall setting of that book is in fact only 40 miles from the location of the 'Secret Island'. Similarly the island and lake featured in Adventure of the Strange Ruby are unusually for Enid given a distinct Dorset location with reference to Corfe Castle and Swanage.

Whilst the mileage may not be quite correct the lake featured in Bevis is Coate Water near Swindon in Wiltshire. Prior to the publication of Bevis, Richard Jefferies wrote (in 1876) to Oswald Crawford, "There is at Coate a reservoir — it is sixty years old and looks quite as a lake — of some eighty acres of water. I think I could write a whole book on that great pond." He goes on to tell how he has mapped out the whole area and learnt how to manage a sailing boat there.

Jefferies has also been said to have influenced Arthur Ransome. I have not been able to discover if Jonathan Cape was the original publisher of Bevis, but they did re-issue the book in 1932. Quite how long the process was leading to this I don't know, but Jonathan Cape also published Ransome's first great success Swallows and Amazons in 1930. This was originally published with illustrations by Helene Carter, but in 1938 (the year of the publication of The Secret Island) Swallows and Amazons was re-published with new illustrations by Ransome himself. As Hugh Pollock was working in publishing during this period, all these circumstances could have been an influence on Enid.

Indeed, Jefferies and Bevis undoubtedly had an influence on a third great children's writer as Malcolm Saville refers to Bevis in his first 'Lone Pine' stories published in the early 40s. However it wasn't until 1954 that Saville included an inland lake and island in one of his stories when he wrote Spring Comes to Nettleford.

And so to the story of The Secret Island, a story very much of its time. In a modern age when distressed or disenfranchised children would immediately be put in the care of the Social Services, where corporal punishment is virtually outlawed and when education is all important the plight of the Arnold children at the mercy of cruel, uncaring and exploitive relations may seem unbelievable. However this situation where children were slapped and sent to bed without food for perceived misdemeanours was not uncommon back in 1938. Unlike later Blyton stories there are apart from the children's opportunist aunt and uncle, no enemies or criminals in this story and none are needed. What we have here is an enthralling story of initially escape from a 'Cinderella' situation and then more importantly of survival.

We are immediately introduced to the four 'victims' and their individual characteristics are readily apparent. Nora is the smallest with a little face and black curly hair. She is very likeable (indeed she is Jack's favourite) and because of this up until now has unwittingly been allowed to be a little slapdash in things she does. Mike is her twin. He looks "exactly like her but bigger". He is a reliable supportive character. Peggy has yellow hair and is a year older than the twins and therefore responsible with a nurturing nature.

They are the children of Captain and Mrs Arnold, who are pioneer aviators and adventurers, who have disappeared en route to Australia presumably on a test flight of the 'fine new aeroplane' that the Captain has built. This was to be a recurring plot line in this series.

Their aunt and uncle, Harriet and Henry (two names Enid would later re-use for the Philpott twins in Five on Finniston Farm) are poor relations to the middle class children, portrayed as what in America would be described as dirt farmers. They are presumably the children's only relatives and convinced the children's parents have disappeared permanently use them as unpaid servants. Nora has to wash the clothes, Peggy does the cooking and cleans the kitchen and Mike is put to work in the fields. Their only pleasure is wandering through the fields in their spare time, which is where they meet their great friend and the fourth adventurer, Jack.

This is Jack's environment and he shows the other children the abilities that will help them survive — how to fish and how to snare rabbits and the knowledge of which flora and fauna are beneficial and which are not. He also knows all the birds and reptiles in the hedgerows and grasses and passes this knowledge to the others. He is immediately the leader figure, despite being a poor working class type. Jack is described as very brown with mischievous blue eyes and raggedy clothes. He has bare feet and legs scratched by brambles. His great strength is because this is all he has ever known in contrast to the Arnolds he is consistently cheerful and optimistic and practical.

He lives on another farm with his old grandfather, who will shortly be leaving the farm to live with Jack's aunt. The inference here is that the grandfather is suffering the onset of dementia, an irony when you consider what happened to Enid and it is the aunt who is unconcerned for Jack, as she has no extra room for him along with his grandfather and considers him, in keeping with those times, old enough to look after himself.

This is quite true, as Jack never grumbles, never whines and makes a joke of everything. He is smart enough to know when he happens on something that will be useful, like his boat, which he found and repaired. He is the archetypal Blyton leader character, the forerunner of Andy, Barney, George and Jo.

Although Enid doesn't give details, we can make several presumptions about the situation at the opening of this story. It is June and it is over two years since Captain and Mrs Arnold disappeared en route to Australia. Thus we can assume that they would have set off on their flight in the Spring around April time and that for the first year of their disappearance, their children have been well treated by Uncle Henry and Aunt Harriet as their parents were confidently expected to be found safe and well.

Only after a year had elapsed would the ill treatment of the children have begun and the removal from school to work full time on the farm initiated. This also allows for the friendship with Jack to develop and for Jack's aunt to realise that she will have to take his grandfather into her home and for Jack to realise that he will have to support himself. Luckily for all the children Jack had discovered the 'Secret Island'. No doubt during the cold dark winter months, the Arnolds would have to be content to retire to their bedroom, but in summer the partial freedom to roam the nearby fields would be comforting and the discovery of the island would indeed represent a paradise.

And this is how Enid portrays it right from the children's first sight of it. She tells us:-
"The little island seemed to float on the dark lake-waters. Trees grew on it and a little hill rose in the middle of it. It was a mysterious island, lonely and beautiful. All the children stood and gazed at it, loving it and longing to go to it. It looked so secret — almost magic."
On closer inspection the island is more enchanting than ever. There are willow trees at the water's edge and a sandy bay with moorhens and traces of otters. They leave the cove and go up through myriad trees, willows, alders, hazels and elderberries. Higher up they find silver birches and oaks. The steep hill at the top gives them a view all around the surrounding lake and down the other side of the hill are caves, plus gorse, heather and bracken. Two streams unite to form a freshwater brook. At the bottom of the hill is a thick wood with in "clear patches" bramble bushes of blackberries, raspberries and hazel nuts. A paradise indeed.

In a typical Blyton touch there is a convenient hollow tree at the lakeside, where the children can hide stores that they gather in the week before they escape. Enid is at pains to emphasise that although much of what they take can be deemed as stealing, it is justified because their relatives don't pay them the wages that could otherwise be spent on supplies. The actual escape is given suitably tense moments. On the morning of their due departure, Aunt Harriet has discovered food has gone missing and the three Arnolds are forbidden their usual Sunday picnic and assigned chores. However, Mike rallies the girls to escape at the first opportunity they get (which they do with hitherto forgotten stocks of soap and margarine) and says he will catch them later. Craftily he emerges just as his aunt discovers the girls are missing and volunteers to find them for her. Their relief in escaping to the hollow tree to rendezvous with Jack is then tempered with the tension generated when they realise they have to make four journeys conveying their goods between the tree and the boat, expecting discovery at any moment.

Even as they depart for the island, the individual characteristics, which will develop on it are displayed. Nora is almost emotionally overwhelmed as they set off for their Nirvana, but the boys are meanwhile rowing strongly and practical Peggy is manning the bailing tin as the boat takes on water. On arrival, Nora's joyful jig is curtailed by Captain Jack's reminder that they have much to do before nightfall. During the first afternoon and evening Enid skilfully gives our senses the ambiance of the island. The children's nostrils are assailed by the smell of wild thyme. Bees hum, butterflies fly, birds sing and moorhens call "Falluck, falluck". They have a campfire which 'crackles' the wood and sends up wood smoke that blends with honeysuckle scent. Later as they settle to sleep, bats flicker overhead, a hedgehog grunts and a reed warbler sings, sounding not unlike a blackbird.

We are also given insights to the practical use of the willow tree. They are located on a bank at the back of the landing cove and whilst the rain has washed the soil away, the exposed roots make useful shelter for stores. However, where Enid really educates us is in the use the children make of the willow trees to build a house. The bending over of the branches of the various willows to meet and be roped together making a roof is practically and sensibly explained, as is the cutting and inter weaving of willow saplings, which will take root and provide a 'living' house.

The survival theme I mentioned earlier also takes root from now on, and Enid continues with our education. Jack starts by fishing for trout, and then despite Nora's objections announces that he will catch rabbits, explaining that if rabbits were not caught, the island would be over run, which perhaps gives us an insight on what Enid's views would have been on the current hunting debate!

Slowly, logically, the story evolves. The children have brought some potatoes with them but they soon are used up, as is the milk that they brought for their tea. So before long, Jack is planning not only to get some more potatoes from his grandfather's farm, but also to bring back seeds, plus his personal livestock, chickens for eggs and his cow Daisy for milk. The episode where he makes Daisy swim after the boat is both amusing and enthralling.

Everything and everyone must have its place on the island, along with the need to remain hidden. When they are unexpectedly invaded by trippers this need for concealment is emphasised and from the mess the trippers leave behind so are Enid's views on the environment, which are still relevant today. Lazy Nora's failure to maintain the security and integrity of the chicken run and the consequential if temporary loss of the hens reads almost as a biblical parable — shades of the Prodigal Son.

Once Willow House is built, the island is explored more fully. Trees grow thickly down to the waterside all around the island. The steep hill that rises in the middle is a warm sunny place covered with rabbit runs and burrows. There are dark caves that run into the hillside. All of these have their uses in the contingency plans that are made in the event of the island being searched. The trees on the water's edge will hide the boat, the hill will serve as a lookout point and the caves will conceal belongings including Daisy who has to be rehearsed for such an occurrence. Usually for modern children's conception, the 'Secret Island' children have to rely on candles and not torches for this subterranean exploration.

The environmental angle continues with the harvesting of crops — mushrooms, turnips and potatoes — and the weaving of baskets from willow, all of which can be sold at a local market for the buying of additional clothing, candles and other needed practicalities. The development of the island as a home and to all intents and purposes, a working farm makes absorbing reading, but it's the unexpected incidents — the arrival of the trippers, Jack's near capture by a policeman at the market and the search of the island that enliven the story. This is never truer than when we get to the climax of the story when Jack discovers that John and Mary Arnold, the parents of the other three children are alive. Coincidentally they have been found marooned on another island this time in the Pacific Ocean and Jack finds them staying in a hotel in the vicinity and takes them back to the 'Secret Island' for a joyful reunion.

Fittingly, it is Nora, the only one of all the children who needed to be drilled by Jack to develop the commitment imposed by the regime of island life, who says that Jack belongs to their family too. Therefore in a suitable, but typically far-fetched Blyton fashion, Captain and Mrs Arnold adopt Jack and arrange to purchase the 'Secret Island' for the continued use of all the children. This ending would be echoed in The Island of Adventure six years later.

E.H. Davie's illustrations do a good job portraying the incidents of the story, but the individual characters lack definition. These illustrations are hidden by default to ensure faster browsing. Loading the illustrations is recommended for high-speed internet users only.